At critical periods in our nation's history, progress becomes inevitable. The momentum is almost palpable, as Americans come together to make a collective decision to right a wrong, or to expand opportunity. We have seen this occur in the areas of civil rights, women's rights and, most recently, gay rights. Of course, struggles and opposition continue long after this moment arrives, as do setbacks. But the trajectory forward becomes irreversible. Historian George Packer once wrote: "With our endless talent for experiment and hope ... we will have a more just society as soon as we want one. This desire keeps rising to the surface, often at the unlikeliest moment."
We may have once again reached such a moment. Courtesy of the leadership of Attorney General Eric Holder, a bi-partisan movement in Congress to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act, and the tireless work of advocates who have been pushing for comprehensive criminal justice reform for decades, the beginning of the end of a generation of mass incarceration may have arrived. Our challenge is to see how far we can push for meaningful, systemic change rather than settle for tinkering around the edges.
For 30 years, a "tough on crime" mentality has held sway among lawmakers in every state and nationally, leaving in its wake an increasingly complex maze of punishment. As a result, we marched unparalleled numbers of our population through the doors of this maze, with little hope or expectation of exit. Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, reductions in parole and probation eligibility, three strikes laws mandating longer sentences, expanded use of life without parole, and harsher sentences for juveniles created dead ends and false exits. The elimination of education and job training programs in prisons further cut off avenues for escape. Even those who did manage to find a way out faced restrictions in housing, health care, employment and financial aid, limiting their chances to succeed on the outside, and pushing them back into the maze.
The system has been particularly onerous for people of color, mostly young black and brown men, who face the added burden of bias, both explicit and unconscious. Study after study document that people of color are arrested, charged, detained and sentenced in greater proportion and more severely than their white counterparts, for similar offenses. They are judged guilty on lesser evidence than whites, and are rarely afforded the benefit of the doubt routinely offered to white defendants. One in every eight black males in their twenties is in prison or jail on any given day, as compared with one in 26 Latino males, and one in 59 white males. If current trends hold, a black male born today has a one in three chance of serving time in prison, as compared with three in 50 white males. According to sociologist Bruce Western, the U.S. penal system has become "ubiquitous in the lives of low-education African American men," and is becoming an "important feature of a uniquely American system of social inequality."
Today, however, at this "unlikeliest of moments," signs of reform are hard to miss. Attorney General Eric Holder is stepping up to talk honestly about an issue that has rendered too many too silent for too long. In sentiments that would have likely run him out of town less than a decade ago, he is now speaking the unadorned truth: "This overreliance on incarceration is not just financially unsustainable. It comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate." He is backing up his words with action on the federal level, using his bully pulpit to push others to take on similar state-level reforms.
Even as we celebrate small victories, though, we must keep our eye focused on a larger goal. Reducing our prison population, while important and worthy, is only half of the equation. The second half is to reinvest funds saved from a smaller criminal justice apparatus into the communities hit hardest by crime and violence. We can use this moment to address the violence, poverty and lack of opportunity that breeds crime. We can confront the racial bias -- implicit and explicit -- that permeates decision-making at every stage of this system. We can proudly reclaim values such as compassion, redemption, and second chances as every bit "American" as retribution, punishment and toughness.
Robert Kennedy once said that communities get the law enforcement they insist upon. Polls increasingly show that the majority of the country wants to invest in prevention instead of prosecution, in more education and less incarceration. These preferences are aligned with the evidence about which programs, interventions and policies actually promote public safety. In other words, we know what works. It is time to come together to insist upon a system of justice that reflects our collective priorities and values.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Charlotte Street Films in support of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which aims to reduce excessive sentencing for those convicted of drug-related crimes. To watch a video supporting the bill, watch here. To support the bill, read here. To see all the other posts in the series, read here.
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